Every synagogue tries to be inclusive. But Jewish families with severely disabled children have learned that inclusivity has its limits. Fortunately, some local Jewish institutions have stepped up to provide a welcoming environment for these families.
This week’s cover story details “Celebrations,” a program open to kids from throughout the Bay Area run by Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. Now in its sixth year, Celebrations provides for children with severe developmental disabilities two hours of music, crafts, storytelling and games, all grounded in Jewish content.
The article also highlights the program’s signature event, the twice-a-year “Havdallah with Horses,” which enables children and their families to gather and eat a meal outside, to be in a farm environment, to look at the horses and even pet them.
It’s more than heartwarming. These special-needs children have difficulty being mainstreamed into regular synagogue programming. Yet every Jewish child has the right to a Jewish education. Every Jewish child has the right to belong.
That’s why Ner Shalom’s willingness to help out matters.
Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, added her voice to the discussion with her op-ed this week. She shares the story of her daughter, who has dyslexia and ADHD. Through a program sponsored by Jewish Milestones, she found a way for her daughter to fully participate in Jewish life.
There are others.
Friendship Circle is a Chabad-sponsored program for Jewish special-needs kids, that like Celebrations, offers a respite for parents. The S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education’s INCLUDE program (being piloted in the North Peninsula area) provides educational resources to families of special-needs children. And there’s also a popular BJE-run weekend for special-needs kids and their families at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.
As Gorovitz notes, the federation has given more than $40,000 in grants to these sorts of programs, and made sure that inclusion of special-needs children and their families remains a priority on the Jewish agenda.
We have no doubt that our community gets it. True, not every synagogue and Jewish institution is prepared to mainstream the severely disabled. There is a long way to go in terms of educating the community and fostering the spirit of welcoming that these kids and their families deserve.
Until then, there are those who said “Hineni” — “Here I am” — and made sure these Jewish children, too long on the margins, are brought into our community.
We appreciate what individuals and institutions have done on behalf of Jewish special-needs kids, and we hope even more will be done in the years ahead.